What are symptoms, treatment for influenza?

by ALANNA WIARDA, M.D.

Advantage Health Physician Network

Northeast Office

 

Influenza, commonly called the flu, is a contagious respiratory viral illness which is most commonly seen in the winter months. The flu virus is spread person-to-person via respiratory droplets produced by coughing, sneezing or talking. There are many different strains of the influenza virus, each designated with an H and N number (example strain H2N3 was common several years ago).

The most recently recognized strain of influenza, the swine flu (H1N1), was first seen in Mexico in March 2009. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 29 countries have officially reported a total of 4,379 cases of this flu strain. As of May 10, 2009, in the United States, there have been 2,532 confirmed cases in 44 states, including 114 in Michigan. As of May 7, there has been one confirmed and 38 probable cases in Kent County. Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of the swine flu are similar to other flu strains.

Symptoms of influenza infection include: fever, chills, headache, body aches, cough, sore throat and fatigue. Fever may last two to five days with flu, compared to 24-48 hours with other common upper respiratory infections. The illness typically lasts three to five days, but weakness and fatigue can persist for several weeks. A person is considered to be contagious from one day before symptoms begin until about one week later.

The most common complication of the flu is pneumonia, which can be very serious in the elderly, young children and those with chronic medical problems. You should seek medical care quickly if serious symptoms develop such as shortness of breath, chest pains, uncontrolled vomiting, dehydration, confusion or convulsions.

Influenza is diagnosed based on the typical symptoms occurring during an outbreak in the community or during the usual flu season. A nasal swab can be obtained to confirm this diagnosis, but is not always necessary.

Treatment of flu symptoms can help to make you feel better, but will not shorten the illness. Recommendations include rest, drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, and use of over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin) to relieve fever, headaches and muscle aches. Use of aspirin is not recommended, especially in children under 18, as this is associated with a serious complication called Reye syndrome. There are several antiviral drugs which can be used to treat or prevent influenza after exposure. These medications do not cure the flu, but do reduce the severity and length of time of symptoms and work best if started within 48 hours of symptoms. These medications include oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), rimantadine (Flumadine) and amantadine (Symmetrel). Antibiotics are not effective against the flu virus.

One of the most effective ways of preventing the flu is the influenza vaccine, which is given once a year during the fall and early winter. Each year, this vaccine is formulated to provide protection against the most common strains of the flu. Simple infection control procedures-including frequent hand-washing with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and covering mouth and nose while sneezing or coughing-can help prevent the spread of influenza. People with influenza symptoms should limit contact with others until feeling well and may be asked to wear a mask while out in public or in the doctor’s office.

If you have any flu symptoms, or have any questions about the flu, it is best to contact your primary care physician. More information and updates about influenza and the swine flu can be found online at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/.

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